GWISE interviews HHMI Gilliam Fellowship Franceine Welcome

Read on for some excellent grant writing advice from a recent HHMI awardee and current SBU graduate student

Name: Franceine Welcome

Education: B.A. in Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology from Connecticut College, with distinction 4th Year Ph.D. Candidate in Biochemistry and Structural Biology in Airola Lab at SBU

Research: My current research is focused on the structure, function, and lipid recognition of lipin phosphatidic acid phosphatases. Lipin is an enzyme that catalyzes the penultimate step of triacylglyceride synthesis. This reaction is important because triacylglycerides are the main energy storage molecules in eukaryotes. Lipin dysregulation can result in insulin resistance and diseases like rhabdomyolysis and Majeed syndrome.

Future goal(s): In the future, a primary goal of mine is to work in science education in some capacity. I’m committed to helping the scientific community become more inclusive and look just as diverse as the world we live in. Research wise, I’m just focused on finishing my Ph.D. I’m open to whatever research opportunity presents itself next!

Who (or what) sparked your interest in this field?
I got interested in biochemistry when I started working in a research lab during my second semester in college. My first research experience was engineering near infrared firefly luciferases (the enzyme that gives fireflies their characteristic glow) suited for in vivo imaging. I was super excited to be working on this project because I felt a real-world connection to it. I used to catch fireflies as a kid during the summer.

When did you know you were interested in pursuing a degree in science/engineering?
Initially, I never saw myself pursuing any kind of graduate degree. I wasn’t the perfect student in undergrad, and just felt very burnt out towards the end. The summer before my senior year, I chose to take an internship working for a nonprofit organization, The Sasamani Foundation, based in Tanzania, East Africa. While working for the Sasamani Foundation I worked on various women’s empowerment initiatives, but the most impactful aspect of my work there involved teaching in rural secondary schools in Bagamoyo. Many of the girls I taught felt super inspired and empowered to study science all because they had seen another black woman do it. It was then that it occurred to me that maybe my experience in college would have been different if I had been taught a science course by a black woman. To make that happen for someone else, I chose to come to graduate school.

What do you think needs to happen for there to be more women in science/engineering?
I think there are many things that need to happen for there to be more women in science/engineering, but one of the most important is mentoring and support. As a first-gen black woman in science, I know too well how isolating it can be to be the only black person or woman in a room or lab. It’s so important to have support for historically underrepresented groups in science and that is key to retention. In undergrad, I was a part of a program that provided mentorship and support for students in STEM that were underrepresented, and I think the support I received during these early years had a huge positive impact on my career trajectory.

You recently won Gilliam Fellowship to support your work as a graduate student! How did that feel? What was the first thought that went through your head?
Initially, I was so shocked to be chosen since I was aware that although students from SBU had applied for years, no one had ever been chosen as a Gilliam fellow. I thought my winning would be such a long shot since I changed labs during my second year and just didn’t feel like I was the ‘perfect student’ (whatever that means). Since becoming a Gilliam fellow, I mostly just feel super proud of myself for not giving up and remembering why I started my Ph.D. in the first place. I’m also super grateful to my advisor, Mike Airola, for believing in me and supporting me to reach my full potential.

Do you have any tips or advice for others applying to Gilliam Fellowship?
My advice to anyone applying to the Gilliam Fellowship would be to start the application early. The application is very long and comprehensive. Also, it would be best to communicate with your research advisor about how the questions in your respective sections are answered. They should go well together and demonstrate that you are both on the same page and openly communicate. I’m also happy to talk to anyone interested in my experience applying for Gilliam!

Fun Question:

Best sunrise/sunset seen to date:
Sunrise in Nungwi, Zanzibar!

If you could only live in one area (city/beach/mountains/desert/plains) for the rest of your life, where would you live and why?
I would totally live near the beach for the rest of my life! Going to the beach is such an essential part of summer for me.

What career did you want to pursue when you were in elementary school?
When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be a forensic scientist. I watched way too much Law and Order.

What are the five items you can’t leave home without?
Five items I cannot leave home without are my water bottle, my emotional support headphones (I’ve seriously left the lab to go back home when I have forgotten them LOL), wallet, keys, and sunglasses.

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Author: sbugwise

We are the Graduate Women in Science and Engineering group at Stony Brook University and we are dedicated to supporting women in STEM fields.

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